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There are many very interesting interviews published in Russia, but most of them are not accessible for people who don't speak the language. To improve the situation, we plan to translate some of such materials. We would like to start with an interesting, if slightly controversial interview with the 7th World Champion Vassily Smyslov. Smyslov, aged 82, is almost blind now, but he still creates in chess – he is active in chess composition. The following interview was conducted by Russian journalist and poet Vladimir Anzikeev for Shakhmatnaya Nedelia (Chess Week). It's been translated by Zoya Vlassova and proofread by Laurence Webb. First appeared in Chess Today No. 1045.
© Copyright Chess Today 2003

Vassily Smyslov:

I am Still Needed in This World!

— Let’s talk about the divine and satanic nature of chess.

— Like any human activity chess has two origins: the divine and the devilish. Chess as an art has a divine origin, while chess as a sport (when victory counts at all costs sacrificing the beauty of the game), springs from Devil. There is a striking evidence of this now. After all, a computer is nothing if not the Devil because it does not create anything. It is an inspector, or more precisely an accuser. In his book 'My Great Predecessors', Garry Kasparov highlights that computers can examine the games of the great chess players and reveal their mistakes. It now appears that the brilliant combinations of Alekhine, Tal and other outstanding players were flawed.

Nevertheless, the most attractive thing about chess is the clash of personalities and their emotions at the chessboard, with all its mistakes. Computers don’t make mistakes, but this does not rule out the struggle. The genius of the great chess players’ combinations proves it.

What we experience at the board is more important. We think artistically. Any attempt to compose the entire game by computer negates the creative (divine) side of chess. But every person should first of all reveal his divine origin. So what is a computer has refuted Lasker’s play – does that mean that Lasker is no longer a great player? We are delighted by great combinations and flaws are less important details.

As in reality in chess two armies face each other. If the outcome can be calculated by computer what is the reason for fighting? In the battle of Austerlitz Napoleon had 40,000 soldiers. His enemies outnumbered him almost two to one. Besides, they were in a better position. The computer would indicate Napoleon should surrender at once. Machines do not take into account psychological factors. In the battle of Austerlitz Napoleon’s enemies either lost their nerve or were just stupid (a human failing), by leaving their better position for a much weaker one. But Napoleon was a genius and routed the enemy army against all logic.

If every action was faultless, it would be of no interest to others. First of all, chess players are human beings dependant on their emotions. They are not insured against mistakes, they even must make them. Chess reflects the essence of human nature, including human ideas, creativity and illusions. The emotional side plays a considerable role. When we read: “If it had not been for… I would have…”, this is impossible because there are no “if’s”! It is not so easy to become a World Champion. Once I was asked to name the best ten chess players of the century. This is an incorrect question. Each champion reflected his age and the spirit of his times. We can say that history itself promoted such chess players. Nowadays computers do this job by finding mistakes and dictating fashion. So the question arises: is chess really dying? (as in the draw-death predicted by Capablanca). Games are not being adjourned; computers calculate everything and start to replace human beings. As I once told you computers should be aids only. What will chess players do when they have been completely superseded by computers? I discussed this issue with Botvinnik and he told me: “They will operate the machines. The best chess players will be the ones with the best machines.”

What kind of divine idea forms the basis of human life? To live and experience everything mankind is meant for. It is impossible to win a game of chess without feelings (as my friend Levenfish told me). Sometimes we experience an incredible range of emotions. People are exposed to the huge nervous ordeals, each defeat is a prototype of death. Chess entails great stress, second to football. As we know from the memoirs of Jerome Horsey, Ivan the Terrible died at the chessboard. In my day Vladimir Bagirov and Aivar Gipslis suffered the same fate. I did not give everything I had in pursuit of ratings or strive for the highest results; possibly with the exception of the World Championships. This strategy made allowed me to spread my energy resources rationally and play for many years. As a rule an over active youth leads to burn out in old age, and computer chess leads to an early aging.

In my opinion a model chess player is an Indian sage bending over the board in majestic silence, but definitely not a person who restlessly shifts the pieces about. 5-minute games are not creative, they are pure sport. Chess has already lost its wise image and moved rapidly towards a sport. Winning at all cost now matters most. The Rest of the World Team won against Russia in the Match of the Century and this event proved to be a clear evidence of the sporting priority above creativity. When we used to play we were not pressured by time constraints.

— You were the only one to forecast the victory of the Rest of the World against Russia...

— It was most likely a prompting from above. Sometimes it happens to me. I had not thought of it and your question took me by surprise. Then the answer dawned on me. Apart from intuition there are some other laws that influence people. Religion calls it a pride of the spirit. In a struggle it is not always the most eminent player who wins. Other aspects form a victory: team unity, cohesion and luck. It is not sufficient to know theory; creative inspiration is also necessary. In my opinion this is the most important factor. It shows the human soul most clearly. Creativity includes Harmony and Beauty, the things that bring the individual closest to his divine origin.

Of course, if it had not been for my eyesight, I would have continued to fight over the board and would not have had time for composing chess problems. This is like a blessing in disguise. If the spectacles could have spread optic perception over the nerve, I would have been able to see. But in my present state I can only set creative problems and process what I have learnt over many years. So I am composing chess problems and writing books in order not to waste my creative origin (divine nature). I have finished my book 'Secrets of Rook Endgames', which includes 60 games and 4 chess problems. It is going to be published soon. I have already published a book 'Theory of Rook Endings'. But the theory is one thing, and practice quite another. Nimzowitsch also wrote two books: 'My System' and 'Chess Praxis'. Of course I annotate my best games in these books. Those who defeated me can include such games in their own works.

— But what predominates in chess: the divine or the satanic?

— Chess has something of the devil. I can’t specify exactly what it is but I feel it intuitively. I think that the Ecclesiastics had every reason to consider chess a demonic game. Not only Christians held this opinion, chess was also banned in Iraq. Even today priests renounce chess. John Paul II used to be a confirmed chess player in his youth and even composed a three-move problem. But when he became the Pope, he gave up chess.

My own experience shows that Devil fights God in chess as in real life, and the field of the battle is not the chessboard but in people’s hearts. I realized this after my match against Huebner that ended in a draw. Lots were cast for the winner, in a casino. It was the first time I had the feeling that I could not influence my own fate. Roulette was to decide the outcome and a golden ball was used to avoid magnetism. If the ball landed on a red number I would be the winner. A black number would give victory to Huebner. The ball was thrown and it fell on the “zero”, as in Dostoevsky. There was no winner. The ball was thrown again and this time it landed on the red number “three” (the first number of Pushkin’s famous three cards: three, seven, ace). I won the match in this way. Later it dawned on me that God had been fighting Satan in the casino and they had made a draw the first time. But, eventually, God won and sentenced Huebner to defeat. As far as I know there were good reasons: Huebner’s behaviour was incorrect during the match.

— You have had a long and colourful life. Who else can we ask: what is the meaning of human life?

— Everyone should experience his own trials, including success and misfortune. From my point of view, Earth is Purgatory, we are preparing here for something higher. I went through both success and knocks of fate. The most terrible ordeal was the loss of sight. However, apparently it was necessary for some reason, maybe to make me look inwards more, towards my own soul. Because the preparation for existence in another world through our earthly being is the meaning of human life. We should gain spiritual baggage here, to make life there possible. I don’t betray secrets that link up the real world with the spiritual. It is better not to know mystical phenomena or enter the divine world the wrong way. Of course every person has his own passions, which make him act against the biblical rules. At present human passions are being intensified by the satanic power as never before. Individuals are tested all the time and they mostly fail, they don’t endure stress. It is very difficult to fight against satanic forces. When I break the divine laws, I lose more than others because I am initiated. Unlike the others I know what I do. But I never try to persuade others or make them change their mind. They will do it themselves in due course.

Every individual is very complex and often closes his mind not just from others but also from himself. It is not that easy to comprehend. The assistance of divine methods is necessary, such as love. If a person is in love, he gets to know himself better by revealing some traits that he has never suspected. Meanwhile he also perceives the person he loves and sees in him such things that are concealed from ordinary view. Here the soul, which is the second sight, comes to the scene. The meaning of life is to let your soul soak in as much of the Holy Ghost as possible. God does not need the unprepared. He takes either those who are ready, or those who are without hope. God grants the others an opportunity to improve their karma. I am probably not quite ready for it yet because once I was dying but did not die. Some days later I dreamt about my mother, she told me: “I was waiting for you. Why did not you come?” Apparently, it was too early. It means that I am still needed for something. Probably I have something to finish in this world.

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted